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Williams v. United States

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 27, 2018



          Hon. Vanessa L. Bryant United States District Judge.

         On February 22, 2018, this Court ruled on all but one claim in Ralston Williams's Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. [Dkt. 11]. The Court denied Mr. Williams's motion on each of those claims, Grounds 1, 3, and 4, including assertions that (1) his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to request that the jury determine the drug quantity beyond reasonable doubt, (2) the Court erred in determining the drug quantity at sentencing by using a preponderance of the evidence standard, and (3) his sentencing counsel was ineffective for failing to object to testimony from Ms. Jessica Burrows's family members. The Court withheld judgment on Ground 2, Mr. Williams's claim that defense counsel failed to properly advise him of his right to testify, and ordered an evidentiary hearing to develop the record on that limited issue.

         Having heard testimony regarding Ground 2 at the August 2, 2018 evidentiary hearing and reviewed the subsequent briefing by the parties, the Court now finds that Mr. Williams's has failed to show ineffective assistance of counsel and DENIES the final claim in his Motion.


         On September 14, 2011, a grand jury charged Mr. Williams, with a three-count indictment of (1) conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C); (2) possession with intent to distribute heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C); and (3) possession with intent to distribute cocaine base / crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C). See United States v. Williams (“Williams”), No. 11-cr-00172, [Dkt. 13 (Indictment)]. Co-defendants Jason Brodsky (“Brodsky”), Bruce Dais (“Dais”), and Alana Fiorentino (“Fiorentino”) were charged only with the first count. Id. Mr. Williams entered a plea of not guilty on September 29, 2011. See Williams, [Dkt. 29 (Minute Entry)]. Unlike Mr. Williams, his co-defendants each entered into a plea agreement prior to trial. See Williams, [Dkt. 92 (Fiorentino Plea Agreement); Dkt. 138 (Brodsky Plea Agreement); Dkt. 145 (Dais Plea Agreement)].

         Prior to trial, Mr. Williams filed a motion to suppress evidence resulting from a warrantless search of Mr. Dais's home, where Mr. Williams was located on September 7, 2011, and where the police came upon him clothed and sitting on a sofa napping in the middle of the day with bags of controlled substances on his lap and arrested him. Williams, [Dkt. 124 (Mot. Suppress)]. In particular, Mr. Williams sought to suppress evidence that heroin and crack cocaine had been on or near his person when police found him, claiming a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The Government challenged Mr. Williams standing, asserting that he was not an overnight guest at the residence with a reasonable expectation of privacy and that exigent circumstances warranted entry and search of the property. Williams, [Dkt. 150 (Opp'n Mot. Suppress)].

         The Court held a hearing on the motion on May 2, 2012. Williams, [Dkt. 155 (Minute Entry of Suppression Hr'g)]. At the hearing, Mr. Williams testified in support of his argument that he was an overnight guest at Mr. Dais's home and had a legitimate expectation of privacy there. Williams, [Dkt. 302 (Suppression Hr'g Tr.)]. The Government had represented in its opposition to the motion that law enforcement officer's observed Mr. Dias conducting a hand to hand drug transaction in front of the residence, chased Mr. Dias in and through the residence in a hot pursuit entry and conducted a limited security sweep of the residence. [Dkt. 150 at 3-4]. The Government also elicited testimony from Mr. Williams that he did not know the name of the owner of the residence, only had a sweat suit to change into but no bag or suitcase, and was at a casino the night before his arrest and therefore was not an overnight guest. Id. at 14:13-16; 15:14-17:1; 31:7-19. After listening to the testimony, the Court denied the motion to suppress, finding that Mr. Williams was devoid of any credibility and concluding that he was not an overnight guest as claimed, but was a casual guest, and that the Government's search of the residence was justified by exigent circumstances. Id. at 39:9-40:10.

         Trial commenced on May 18, 2012, and lasted four days. Co-defendants Fiorentino and Brodsky testified on behalf of the Government. See Williams, [Dkt. 220 (Trial Tr. 5/18/12 Vol. I) at 2; Dkt. 222 (Trial Tr. 5/24/12 Vol. II) at 10]. Mr. Williams did not take the stand at trial. On May 29, 2012, the jury found Mr. Williams guilty on all three counts. See Williams, [Dkt. 174 (Jury Verdict)].

         The Court held the sentencing hearing on May 14, 2013. At the hearing, Kim Burrows, the mother of Ms. Jessica Burrows, a young woman who had died from an overdose of heroine purchased from one of Mr. Williams's drug dealers, testified about her daughter's characteristics and the impact of her daughter's death on the family. See Williams, [Dkt. 315 (Sentencing Tr.) at 18:5-23:4]. Mr. Williams's friend, daughter, and sister then spoke on his behalf. See Id. at 25:12- 28:19.

         Mr. Williams also testified about the matters for which he took responsibility, his compassion for people addicted to drugs, including the decedent, his efforts to dissuade the decedent from using the drugs he continued to traffic, and that he was “not a big drug dealer.” See Id. at 29:1-33:10. After considering the testimony, the Court sentenced Mr. Williams to 168 months' imprisonment; three years' supervised release; a fine of $100, 000 to be paid if he is deported and illegally reenters; and a $300 special assessment. Id. at 38:11-40:9.

         Mr. Williams timely appealed the jury verdict and his sentence, specifically, the ruling on his motion to suppress the narcotics, the ruling regarding his role in the offense, and the ruling on the quantity of heroine. See Williams, [Dkt. 305 (Notice of Appeal)]. On June 20, 2014, the Second Circuit issued a summary order affirming both his conviction and sentence. Williams, [Dkt. 344]. Mr. Williams did not file a petition for writ of certiorari and his time to do so expired on September 18, 2014. See 28 U.S.C. § 2101(c) (requiring a writ of certiorari to be filed within 90 days after the entry of judgment).

         Mr. Williams timely filed this habeas petition on August 31, 2015. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1). On February 22, 2018, the Court denied all Grounds in Mr. Williams's § 2255 Motion except Ground 2-claiming his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to properly advise him of his right to testify and for overriding his desire to testify at trial. [Dkt. 11 (Feb. 22, 2018 Order)]. The Court ordered an evidentiary hearing to gather evidence as to whether trial counsel properly advised Mr. Williams of his right to testify. Id.

         On August 2, 2018, the Court held the evidentiary hearing. Mr. Williams and his trial counsel, Attorney O'Reilly, testified at the hearing. See [Dkt. 29 (Hr'g Audio)]. Mr. Williams testified that, while Attorney O'Reilly told him that he had the right to testify at trial, Attorney O'Reilly consistently said that he would not let Mr. Williams get on the stand. Id. at 31-33. Mr. Williams testified that, as a result, he believed that it was ultimately his lawyer's decision whether he would testify, not his own. Id.

         Attorney O'Reilly testified that, while he could not remember the exact conversions he had with Mr. Williams on the topic, it was his custom and practice to advise his clients that it was their right to testify at trial, and their decision whether to do so. Id. at 1:22-1:42. He testified that he advised Mr. Williams against taking the stand at his trial for a number of reasons, but did not remember any significant conflict between himself and Mr. Williams regarding the decision to testify. Id.

         At the hearing, Mr. Williams's counsel argued that a failure to properly advise a client of his right to testify is a structural error, which requires automatic vacatur of his conviction without further inquiry into the prejudice he may or may not have suffered. Id. at 1:47-49. Mr. Williams's counsel requested, and the Court allowed, the parties to brief this issue. Id.

         Legal Standard

         Section 2255 enables a prisoner in federal custody to petition a federal court to vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Relief under Section 2255 is generally available “only for a constitutional error, a lack of jurisdiction in the sentencing court, or an error of law or fact that constitutes a fundamental defect which inherently results in complete miscarriage of justice.” Graziano v. United States, 83 F.3d 587, 590 (2d Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Section 2255 provides that a district court should grant a ...

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